Last month, I attended my third NAESM Conference (National African-American MSM Leadership Conference) in Dallas, Texas. The conference happened at a period of significant change in America. It actually took place the same week as the Presidential Inauguration! Not surprisingly, many at that conference needed an avenue to express how they were feeling. NAESM also offered the opportunity for anyone who wanted to talk to a therapist about the election.
The conference was also a space for so much more than processing feelings about and reactions to the new President. This was the largest NAESM to date, with about 600 hundred black gay men and their allies from around the country -- and a few, like myself, from Africa. We talked about many things, including a growing concern about HIV among black gay men in the US. This isn't news. In the United States, gay, bisexual, and other men who have sex with men are disproportionately affected by HIV.
Gay and bisexual men, black/African-American men, especially those who are younger, are the most disproportionately affected by HIV. A lot of times this is reported in the news, but by voices who are talking about affected groups. When men talk about how HIV affects their lives and communities, it sounds different. I heard people talk about their personal lives in ways that remind me of my own experience in Africa. In one group discussion, a gay man from Houston talked about how limited access to quality health care, lower income and less education place men like him at higher risk of HIV than some other races/ethnicities. This is true for gay men in Africa, who already face a greater risk of getting infected, mainly because of who they love or their socio-economic status.
Looking at ways for gay men in the US and those in Africa to build alliances is actually one of the things that brings me to the conference. Reflecting back just before the conference, I posted on my Facebook wall about the need to have a conversation with my African-American friends/brothers about the complicated relationship between Africans and African Americans! A few hours a later I was getting tens of comments and messages from friends who also felt that there was a serious need for this conversation! I believe the time has never been so urgent for us to have this very needed conversation, and what better way to do it other than using something that everyone of us can relate to? PrEP for HIV prevention!
And that is why attending NAESM this year was so crucial for me. I came there to work with members of AVAC's PxROAR program from the US and Africa -- and with our board member and External Relations Director at the HVTN, Steve Wakefield -- to have a discussion about PrEP in our respective worlds.
The panel was one of the first times that I can remember that a space was created for Africans and African Americans who identify as gay to look at what our differences are and what brings us together. It was the beginning of a conversation that we need to keep going and that the PxROAR program will hopefully catalyze through online forums, calls and informal relationships to hear each other's voices and views.
Some of the key things that we talked about in Dallas are that PrEP is a key tool no matter where you came from or the color of your skin. We looked at the data and how they show that it has been proven to be an effective tool that could help prevent new HIV infections among both communities. Then we talked about how PrEP has been delivered in the US and in Africa. We found out that in most parts of Africa, PrEP is just starting to be discussed and there is nearly no public campaign for PrEP for gay men. Whereas in the US, campaigns like PrEP4Love are already making headways in the black gay community. So, we all have a lot to share with each other! And AVAC is excited for PxROAR to engage gay men as part of its program in the US and in Africa.
Now, more than ever, is the time that black people and people of color all over the world must hold up one another up in solidarity and love. As Africans, we must not stand by and assume that what we see going on in our American communities is just an African-American problem. As Martin Luther King Jr. once said, "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere."